Revisionism with Romm

The color of solar cells — and their short energy payback — are trivial factors when considering the huge climate benefit they provide in avoiding the release of CO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels. That was a central point I made when I broke the story on the error-riddled book Superfreakonomics…

Really? No: what JR actually said was:

“Here are the howlers in that paragraph for the record::

1. they aren’t bloack, they are blue,
2. their efficiency may be higher than 12%,
3. The biggest howler… What was the absorbtivity or emissivity of the material that the panel covered up,
4. Unparseable. Read it yourself.”

He later posted an update, after John O’Donnell pointed out that the major error is CO2. RC also made the same point. I’m not sure what the exciting “exclusive new analysis” is supposed to be, either. It looks like it covers the same ground as the RC post. But the factors that Romm has now, correctly, realised are trivial are the very ones he was promoting as major errors before.

[Update: JR is somewhat offended by my charge of revisionism and says there was no intention on my part to revise history and the current version is what I was trying to say all along. I'm not entirely sure what the differences are between the current and the original version - anybody keep a copy of the original? I've asked JR but no reply so far on that point - because the current version seems equally open to the criticism I first made.

His post now has a footnote NOTE: I have updated this post slightly for absolute clarity since some people might not read the first debunking post that I linked to above (click here), which lays out the timeline of how I came to include this factor of 100,000.; the footnote itself has been updated; originally it said ... for absolute clarity since some blogger out in the ether failed to read my first debunking post that I linked to above (again, click here, it isn't hard folks)... I was that "some blogger".]

Comments

  1. #1 carrot eater
    2009/11/12

    I noticed that at the very beginning. Romm’s first few points were trivial, and then somebody else pointed out the gorilla to him.

    RealClimate asked why Levitt just didn’t do that math. I don’t know if Levitt could do it alone, but Romm certainly could have.

    I liked how RC also took the worst-case scenario for his points 1 and 3, to drive home how little any of it mattered – by placing totally absorbing panels in the desert. Well, I guess worst case would be placing them over clean Arctic ice, but that’d be stupid.

  2. #2 Steve Bloom
    2009/11/12

    It would be stupid, but let’s ignore that and focus instead on what a great power source it would be for the pumps forcing SO2 through those 18-mile hoses.

  3. #3 Steve Bloom
    2009/11/12

    Joe’s update (in the original post) admitted that he had been missing the forest for the trees, although I think it was worthwhile to point out that L+D’s claim was wrong even within its own terms. Not long ago he also missed the CO2 big picture when putting up a guest post that said the warming effect (almost all from CO2) from a hair dryer exceeded that of the takeoff of two 747s for an equivalent period of time. I pointed out that this could only be true if the planes’ own CO2 contribution was ignored, at which point he made the correction. In any case I think the statement William highlighted was sloppiness rather than a conscious effort to reinvent history. I’m surprised he doesn’t slip up more given his posting volume and the fact that he dictates posts using VR software.

  4. #4 dhogaza
    2009/11/12

    Not long ago he also missed the CO2 big picture when putting up a guest post that said the warming effect (almost all from CO2) from a hair dryer exceeded that of the takeoff of two 747s for an equivalent period of time. I pointed out that this could only be true if the planes’ own CO2 contribution was ignored, at which point he made the correction.

    I would say “clarification” in this case, because I found the comparison he was making obvious …

  5. #5 Hank Roberts
    2009/11/12

    Someone should open a tally by author and publication of total words published (book included), total errors noted, total errors acknowledged, and the lag time for each correction.

    Kind of like the way people track software bugs. Heck, people could even give notice of errors in private and see if they get acknowledged before counting coup.

    BugTraq or something like Mozilla uses might work for this.

  6. #6 Monado
    2009/11/12

    No calculation on solar cells seems to take into account the energy and pollution generated in manufacturing them. I often think that making millions of the suitcase-sized, low-tech solar cookers and giving them away in poor countries would give us more bang for our buck as people would be able to cook without firewood, saving trees and carbon emission at the same time.

  7. #7 carrot eater
    2009/11/12

    Monado, I agree that the energy payback period for solar cells has been somewhat less discussed, but it most definitely has been discussed and calculated. Payback period of about a year or two, is it?

    I’m also partial to low-tech solutions wherever they are feasible.

  8. #8 Eli Rabett
    2009/11/13

    Not only CO2 but also really cutting down on the soot and improving health

  9. #9 outeast
    2009/11/13

    Monado, domestic woodburning isn’t that big an issue I think? It’s carbon that would enter the atmos anyway soon enough when the wood rots, no? Becomes more of an issue if the source trees are not replaced of course (sink loss), but still the key lies in replacing fossil fuels not wood since that’s the accumulated stored carbon from past millennia (well, rather more:)) and so is additional to the carbon budget.

  10. #10 Brian Schmidt
    2009/11/13

    I agree with Steve in #3, the update made CO2 the central point, and Romm appears to be acknowledging it at the time he added the update. So maybe Romm should have said in the later post “that was a central point I made after adding an update with Donovan’s analysis when I broke the story,” but I don’t think the difference is that terrible.

    And obviously it was Donovan and not Romm that spotted the central flaw, but Romm is just taking credit for breaking the story.

    [Romm is criticising the Freaks for failing to spot the central point re CO2. But this is exactly the mistake that Romm made. So the current post is misleading, when it says The color of solar cells — and their short energy payback — are trivial factors when considering the huge climate benefit they provide in avoiding the release of CO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels.That was a central point in my first post debunking the error-riddled book Superfreakonomics. It was only (arguably) the central point in the re-written version. In the original version it wasn't present at all. If Romm - physicst, cliamte expert, whatever - missed it, then its not too unreasonable for the Freaks to miss it too. Romm has subsequently corrected himself; I dno't know if the Freaks have (from what I've seen, they tend to avoid talking about the science rather than correcting it) -W]

  11. #11 carrot eater
    2009/11/13

    “So maybe Romm should have said in the later post “that was a central point I made after adding an update with Donovan’s analysis when I broke the story,” but I don’t think the difference is that terrible.”

    Why does he feel the need to gratuitously toot his own horn in that sentence? Just omit the sentence altogether. Nothing is lost.

  12. #12 Thomas
    2009/11/13

    Monado, while solar cookers seems like a good idea it hasn’t been exactly easy to make people adopt them. There has been several attempts to give away solar ovens that have failed. If something is free many assume it has to be inferior. Oddly enough selling them seems to be more successful.

    Rural societies tend to be conservative and with a different kind of stove you need to change the way you make your food or it may not taste the same or even be safe to eat. It’s more of a marketing than a financial problem. I think using the money for schools is better, educated people have an easier time adapting new solutions.

  13. #13 Deep Climate
    2009/11/15

    #3
    Wasn’t that same post? The O’Donnell email contained the hairdryer/Boeing comparison. There’s an interesting postscript to that.

    Re-reading the original post, I see that JR actually reads the comments and takes them to heart.

    At #4, Steve Bloom wrote (as noted above):

    “It means that running a handheld electric hairdryer on US grid electricity delivers a planet-warming punch comparable to two Boeing 747s operating at full takeoff power for the same time period.”

    [JR: It's just a comparison of their relative thermal emissions.]

    Then at #33, I responded:

    Still not as clear as it could be. I think you mean:

    “It means that running a handheld electric hairdryer on US grid electricity delivers a planet-warming punch comparable to the direct thermal emissions of two Boeing 747s operating at full takeoff power for the same time period.”

    [or "heat given off by" if you want to be more colloquial.]

    Of course, the overall point is very well taken.

    The rest of the book is full of, um, fallacious nonsense as well. But perhaps less dangerous nonsense.

    Sure enough the O’Donnell quote now has an added clarification, thanks to our intervention:

    “It means that running a handheld electric hairdryer on US grid electricity delivers a planet-warming punch comparable to [the heat given off by] two Boeing 747s operating at full takeoff power for the same time period.”

    Yes, Romm did “miss the forest for the trees” in the original post. And yes he did “toot his own horn” unecessarily. I think he probably rushed the original post. But at least he corrects his mistakes, and even admits them sometimes.

    And he even accepts reasonable criticism in comments. Not all bloggers do that.

  14. #14 Deep Climate
    2009/11/15

    Comment #4 on the original Romm post from Steve Bloom was actually:

    Re #2: Joe should clarify, but I suspect that calculation ignores the effect of the CO2 emitted by the 747s (i.e., just counts the heat of combustion). Even if so it’s still a useful comparison.

    [JR: It's just a comparison of their relative thermal emissions.]

    There are some formatting problems in my previous comment, but, hey, that happens to the best of us, even our esteemed host.

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